Located about fifty miles off the southern coast of Isabela, Floreana (or Isla Santa Maria) has the smallest population of the four inhabited Galapagos Islands, with just over 100 residents. Beginning in the 19th century, Floreana has been continuously inhabited by whalers, pirates and settlers, drawn to the tiny island by its natural water source and lush green season. While this somewhat sleepy island is often overlooked as a prime destination for Galapagos travel, Floreana has so much to offer tourists and explorers.
Home to the first human residents of the Galapagos Islands, Floreana wildlife was devastated by early settlers and hunters’ demands on the landscape, as well as many introduced plants and species. The Floreana tortoise (one of 15 subspecies found among the islands) has been completely extinct due to hunting and consumption by early pirates and whalers. Other subspecies have been relocated to the islands by visitors and residents as pets, and live in protected areas on the island. Some scientists believe there may be Floreana tortoises now living on other islands in the archipelago.
The endemic Floreana mockingbird has also experienced local extinction, and at this point is no longer found on the island at all, but does exist on the nearby islands of Champion and Gardner. With a total population of around 100 birds between the two islands, recent conversation efforts have been increased to prevent this mockingbird from becoming the first Galapagos bird species to reach extinction.
While the flora and fauna of Floreana is an intriguing study for those with a keen interest in biology, its human population is the most mysterious and captivating of all the Galapagos Islands. In the late 18th century, whalers installed a wooden barrel in what is now known as Post Office Bay. Passing ships would collect the mail and distribute upon arrival to the mainland. To this day, visitors still place letters and postcards in the barrel, often without postage, with the hope that it will eventually reach its destination.
In 1807, Patrick Watkins became the first accidental permanent resident of the island when he was stranded there for eight years. He survived by growing fruits and vegetables and peddling them to the passing whalers. In 1835, Charles Darwin reached Floreana (then known as Charles Island) on the HMS Beagle, his first journey to the islands that inspired his most famous work, On the Origin of Species.
Perhaps the most beguiling period of human residency on Floreana began with the 1929 arrival of Dr. Friedrich Ritter and his partner, Dore Strauch. The couple already had a reputation upon their arrival to Floreana by way of Guayaquil and Berlin. Dr. Ritter abandoned his dental practice and ran off with Dore, his former patient. Each left behind a spouse of their own. Ritter had grown weary of modern life in Germany, and he and his young lover set off to establish themselves as the “Adam and Eve” of this desolate island. Ritter cut a polarizing figure in the press that reported intently on their hard scrabble life. Their efforts were laborious and they were able to establish a scrappy homestead raising chickens and growing all their own food. It was rumored they had their teeth removed prior to their journey to avoid the need for any dental attention in their new lives, and shared one set of dentures for special occasions. Friedrich was said to have proclaimed his intent to become the first human to live 150 years or more.
A few years after Ritter’s arrival, a second group of Germans arrived on Floreana. Heinz Wittmer, his wife Margaret, and Heinz’s teenage son Harry set out for Floreana after following Friedrich and Dore’s story in the media. Heinz left behind a prestigious position as secretary to the mayor of Cologne and set out with his family in search of a life closer to nature, hoping the new climate would help alleviate some of Harry’s health problems. Margaret was pregnant at the time, soon giving birth to a son named Rolf, who was the first documented birth on the island of Floreana. They followed up with a daughter they named Floreanita, but called Inge. Their relations with Dore and Dr. Ritter were at times strained, but the families were able to fall into a peaceful existence where it wasn’t uncommon for them to trade in livestock and other provisions.
In 1933, the arrival of “The Baroness” Eloise von Wagner Bosquet managed to shake up the idyllic existence of the few settlers. She arrived with great fanfare, two lovers, and plans to build a grand hotel on the island. She dubbed herself the “Queen of Galapagos,” and managed to alienate the Wittmers and enrage Dr. Ritter. After less than a year of peacocking around the island, her opulent hotel never materialized. Apparently finding life far less glamorous than she imagined, the baroness set sail on a boat for Tahiti, leaving one of her lovers behind. No yacht was spotted on the day of her departure; she left behind all her precious possessions, and was never heard from again in the islands or Tahiti. Speculation about collusion and murder between Ritter and her remaining lover, a German named Lorenz, were never proven. Not long after, Lorenz set off back to the mainland, but his boat never arrived. Months later he was found, along with one of his companions, perished on a desert island more than 100 miles away.
In 1934, Dore Strauch summoned the Wittmers and explained that Friedrich, a supposedly devout vegetarian, was on his death bed due to his consumption of poisonous chicken. He quickly lost the ability to speak, and his final written statement was directed at Dore: “I curse you with my dying breath.” Soon after Ritter’s death, Dore abandoned their farm, Friedo, and returned to Germany. She wrote a book about their time, and subsequently was admitted to a mental hospital. The assumption by many historians is that she poisoned Ritter after years of ill treatment.
The Wittmers lived on and eventually thrived on Floreana, raising their children and building a respected legacy. The Wittmers and their descendants eventually opened the Wittmer Lodge on Black Beach, and young Rolf grew up as a fisherman before turning his career towards tourism. He now owns and operates Rolf Wittmer Turismo Galapagos Ltd. Margaret went on to publish her own memoir, Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagos. One of the more grisly and outlandish rumors that persist among locals is that some answers to the plaguing mysteries of Floreana could be found in Mrs. Wittmer’s kitchen: that she may have killed the baroness and prepared her into sausage, eventually fed to eager sailors and visitors to the Wittmer homestead. The Floreana locals continue to further tales of the Ritters and Wittmers and other curious circumstances continue to persist on this enigmatic island.
The small island of Floreana is easily traversed by automobile, and one can easily access the former caves and homesteads of the Ritters and Wittmers, as well as the slow-moving spring that served as the islands only natural water source, where the baroness is said to have indulged in frequent and lengthy showers.
Want to visit this incredible island? We offer several trips to the islands, including our SUPERlative Ecuador Adventure, a customized itinerary that offers a unique experience of mainland Ecuador and the islands, including two nights on Floreana.